5 Heart-Healthy Food Swaps

When it comes to your heart health, it’s the little, everyday choices you make that can have the biggest impact on your future well-being. Along with exercising consistently and avoiding smoking, your diet is an important way you can control what your life looks like decades from now.  

That’s why it’s so important — no matter how old you are — to cut back on foods with minimal nutritional value in favor of foods that are good for your heart.

Isatu Isuk, R.D., L.D.N., a dietitian at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, suggests five simple adjustments you can make to help boost your heart health.

A woman holds a cup of nuts outside.

1. Choose nuts over chips.

Sometimes your craving for a salty, crunchy snack is too strong to ignore. But that bag of chips is high in sodium and often contains unhealthy fats (saturated fat and trans fat), contributing to the buildup of plaque on the inner walls of your arteries and increasing your risk of coronary heart disease. Also, refined carbohydrates found in chips can spike your blood sugar.

What to do when the urge to snack strikes? Try a handful of nuts instead, and savor every crunch: People who regularly eat nuts are 14 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease and 20 percent less likely to develop coronary heart disease. Nuts contain heart-healthy, unsaturated fats along with fiber and other nutrients, but don’t overdo it.

“Studies suggest that eating nuts may provide protective benefits for the heart, but they are still high in calories,” says Isuk. “Just make sure you eat a small portion (about 1 ounce) and don’t mindlessly munch.”

A young man drinks a cup of coffee in a cafe.

2. Reach for coffee or tea, not soda.

If you’re looking for the energy boost that a caffeinated beverage brings, brew a cup of coffee or some green or black tea. They’re more beneficial than soda because they are naturally sugar-free and have heart-healthy antioxidants such as chlorogenic acids, which protect against cell damage that contributes to heart disease.

Research indicates that coffee and tea are rich in antioxidants that are good for your heart, possibly reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke by lowering cholesterol levels. For this, and other health reasons, the right amount of coffee or tea can be good for you (typically, up to two or three cups a day), but watch the cream and sugar, cautions Isuk. And, if you’re pregnant or have other health conditions, check with your doctor about what amount of caffeine is safe for you.

Broken pieces of dark chocolate are stacked on a table.

3. Switch from baked goods to dark chocolate.

Sweet treats such as cookies, cakes and pastries get their delicious flavor from a host of bad-for-you ingredients like sugar and white flour, as well as butter, margarine or hydrogenated oils, which are high in trans fats. To satisfy your sweet tooth, try a piece of dark chocolate instead. “Chocolate and its main ingredient, cocoa, contain flavanols that help lower blood pressure and improve blood vessel function,” Isuk explains.

While dark chocolate still has fat, sugar and high calories, in moderation it’s a healthier dessert than most choices at your local bakery. Research suggests that eating chocolate a few times a week could reduce your risk of experiencing heart attack, stroke or chest pain by 11 percent.

Two fillets of grilled salmon with argula.

4. Broil or grill salmon instead of steak.

During grilling season, steaks, burgers and hot dogs are often the first thing we think of. But those meats are high in saturated fat, which increases low-density lipoproteins (LDL-C), the “bad” cholesterol in the blood. Having high levels of LDL cholesterol is a leading risk factor for heart disease.

The better choice? Grill salmon or albacore tuna — and choose a steak cut for your fish instead of a filet. (It’s a dense, hearty cut that won’t fall apart on the grill.) Both types of fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can decrease the amount of fat in your blood and plaque buildup along arteries.

A bushel of kale in a wicker basket.

5. Ditch white side dishes in favor of green ones.

Potatoes, noodles, rice and bread are typical sides served with meals. But frequently eating these starchy carbohydrates can contribute to high blood sugar. Elevated blood sugar levels also put you at higher risk for heart disease. If you choose to have a starchy side dish, select whole grain pasta, brown rice or wild rice, in small amounts.

You can get just as much — if not more — flavor from a side dish of green veggies. Vegetables such as kale, broccoli, spinach and collard greens are filled with fiber (it keeps you full longer), are low in carbohydrates and supply vitamins K, A and C along with other minerals and nutrients. Adding green vegetables to your plate can help lower high cholesterol and reduce internal inflammation, two risk factors for heart disease, says Isuk.

By just changing a fraction of the food decisions you make every day, you’ll be on the path to making a positive impact on your heart health. And always be sure to talk to your doctor or a dietitian when you make changes to your diet.

Fit Facts | Food and Nutrition

Believe it or not, snacks can be part of a healthy diet. Smart Snacking helps you avoid over-eating later in the day.

Heart-Healthy Salmon Recipe

Isuk created this salmon dish to satisfy taste buds and heart health.

Spicy Broiled Salmon

  • 1 pound cleaned fresh salmon (cut in two pieces)
  • ½ cup chopped red bell pepper
  • ¼ cup chopped onions
  • ½ small fresh habanero pepper
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1.5 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice


  1. Blend red bell pepper, onions, habanero pepper, garlic and ginger to form a paste.
  2. Add extra virgin olive oil, soy sauce, lemon juice and black pepper to the mix and blend.
  3. Pour mixture over the salmon and coat well on both sides.
  4. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 24 hours.
  5. Place salmon skin-side down in a nonstick shallow baking dish.
  6. Broil for 20 to 30 minutes.

Serves 4.

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